According to a certain Syrian gentleman — from the Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the Pentarchy of “first churches” going back to the Apostles, specifically Peter and Paul — Christ was baptized in the waters of the Jordan. And not on His own account, strictly speaking, but for mysterious reasons, having to do with the Sacrament of Baptism itself. He was, as it were, “baptizing Baptism,” and making holy the waters. This was a manifestation of the Trinity — done in the name of the Holy Trinity, and by the Trinity, for the purposes of the Trinity. God the Father acknowledges, “this is my Son”; the Spirit descends in the form of a dove.

“There they are, all Three. How can anyone miss it?”

He was alluding to another gentleman, a certain smartass from California, who’d said he had read the Bible right through, but hadn’t found the Trinity mentioned in it.

But of course one can miss anything, if one is sufficiently obtuse. It is what makes our modern, happyface, deist unitarianism possible; along with atheism and a few other things. And as my Syrian informant said — decades ago — this was so in Damascus, too. Syrian Christians were already “promoting themselves to the glory” of a post-religious, middle-class life, with osterizers and toasters. So, for that matter, were their Islamic friends, “going rogue” from the Muslim point-of-view; losing all interest in observance, and by extension, in belief. (Verily, this opened the field to the fanatics.)

Denho, the Syriac term, can be translated “Epiphany,” or “Theophany.” It is the same Feast as we celebrate “todayish” in the West, though if I’m not mistaken it omits specific reference to the Magi. Yet it stresses a first appearance to the Gentiles. It carries the etymological implication of a light-burst, a moment of revelation. But so does the Epiphany in our Western feast. The Syrian rite combines gospel events on several planes, as ours does; while focusing upon action through John the Baptist. The miracle of Cana, and of holy marriage; of Magnificat, and the baptism of children: all this is carried into the Manifestation — alike through Greek Testament and Peshitta. East and West, the Epiphany recalls that moment when the sublime, very ancient and long enduring Hebrew faith “explodes” into the World Religion, for the salvation of all men.

From the little I was able to understand in my own readings on “comparative religion” — back in the day — I was struck most forcibly not by the theological differences of the Eastern churches, but by their familiarity, across the board. Separated, as we have often been through many generations, the pattern of Liturgy remains the same. It seems to lie discernibly beneath each refinement. It is like reading alternative translations of the same original poem. That Poem being Christ.

Something mysterious has been working against syncretism in all the wandering strands of our Faith. Everywhere the idea of Epiphany remains. The accretions through the centuries seem to follow from the source, more than from external influences. There is that “Jewish” quality — for although we are not united by tribe, we are bound by calling.

In my days of wandering — even before I became a Christian myself, when I was motivated instead by anthropological curiosity — I was fascinated by Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians, Malabars; … all the “exotics” I encountered.

The Portuguese, on first landing in India, were surprised to find among Hindu-looking temples, some dominated by large granite and quite unmistakable Crucifixes. It was a shock of recognition, between two Christian peoples, separated since the first Christian century. But in the old Syriac word, “Nasrani,” they could hear what these people still were, and of their long descent from Saint Thomas the Apostle.

I read (still own) a history of the Christians in China, long, long before first contact with the European missionaries of the Renaissance; was impressed, in Japan, by the fact of underground Catholic survival through centuries under the threat of hideous torture. Or of the Korean Confucian converts to an unimaginably distant Nazarene — “self-taught” Catholics (from the Jesuits at Peking) whom the Jesuits arriving in the Hermit Kingdom had known nothing about. Then, as now, everywhere we go, including Antarctica in one Anglo-Argentine anecdote I could tell, there are Christians to greet Christians.

No other religion has travelled like this. But to the theophanic point, none has maintained its integrity over vast, “multicultural” isolations of space and time. And through the wormholes come the ministers of renewal. Christ does not forget those who have not forgotten Him — mother and child, through the generations.

It is easy enough to lapse, especially when every worldly advantage can come of apostasy, as has been the case through nearly fourteen centuries for Christians in the Muslim realms. The hard thing to understand is rather, why there are people who have not lapsed; who continue to die, sometimes, for their refusal to relinquish a promise that was made to their fathers, dozens of fathers ago.

The historians must explain how all of this was possible, through the “normal” or “natural” progression of events. Indeed, they have a lot of explaining to do.